Friday 17 January 2020

1917 review: 'Astonishing'

5 stars

On the front line: George MacKay leads the audience through a terrifying incarnation of the trenches in 1917
On the front line: George MacKay leads the audience through a terrifying incarnation of the trenches in 1917
George MacKay, centre, in a scene from '1917'

Chris Wasser

Is 1917 one of the greatest war films ever made? I must say, Sam Mendes’s astonishing World War One thriller is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Come to think of it, I’m almost certain I said the same thing about Christopher Nolan’s 2017 World War Two epic, Dunkirk.

If you’ll recall, Nolan’s joint divided its nerve-shredding narrative into three separate timelines, forgoing both characterisation and dialogue, for a more immersive and experiential cinematic endeavour.

1917 moves to a similar beat, but has been photographed, choreographed and edited in such a way as to suggest that the entire film was shot in a single, unbroken take. Both films dig deeper, and hit harder, than most of their predecessors. Both are obsessed with time. We could go on.

The thing to remember, however, is that if you look close enough, most war films follow a similar path in the storytelling department — and 1917 is no exception. But it’s the masterful execution — with Mendes taking a leaf from Nolan’s book, and going above and beyond to craft an inimitable display of pure cinema — that makes all the difference.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake, two young British soldiers stationed in northern France in the spring of 1917.

One day, Schofield and Blake are assigned a near-impossible mission. According to General Erinmore (Colin Firth), the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment plans to attack German forces with all their might.

Unbeknownst to the battalion, however, they are about to walk straight into a trap. The Germans are planning an ambush, and General Erinmore has instructed the lads to hand-deliver a message to the battalion, ordering them to call off the attack.

The only problem is, Schofield and Blake are miles away from said battalion. The clock is ticking, and the boys must venture deep into no-man’s territory in order to get the job done and save the lives of 1,600 soldiers, including Blake’s brother.

They’ll need all the assistance they can get. They will, as you might imagine, come up against snipers, booby traps and attacks from the air. Intense doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Visually, 1917 is in a league of its own. Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is in the form of his life, shooting long, continuous takes, and combining them in a way that allows us to experience the horrors of the mission, uninterrupted and (almost) in real time.

It may sound like a gimmick, but rest assured, Mendes (who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, loosely basing it on an account told to him by his grandfather) is both respectful and committed to the process, and the result is a technical achievement that is as thrilling as it is groundbreaking.

Mendes and his genius director of photography somehow manage to capture the raw, first-hand horrors of a war that decimated cities and destroyed millions of lives, but that also required ordinary men to do things that no human being should ever be asked to do. This is where MacKay (brilliant) and Chapman (likewise) earn their pay cheques, with both actors working hard to convey the fear, anxiety and unimaginable terror of their characters’ mission.

Thomas Newman’s pulsating score piles on the dread, and an impressive ensemble of seasoned performers, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott, drift in and out of the cracks, briefly portraying captains, lieutenants and colonels. But 1917 is all about Blake and Schofield.

An astonishing achievement in filmmaking, this isn’t just another week at the pictures — this is, indeed, one of the greatest war films ever made.


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